Wi-Fi plan gets tentative nod — with conditions
Final approval of controversial downtown Palo Alto antennas rests with City Council
A plan to mount two AT&T Wi-Fi antennas on a sixth-floor balcony at Hotel President, located at 488 University Ave. in Palo Alto, received a tentative endorsement from the city Wednesday night — as well as requirements intended to ease the concerns of hotel residents.
To further the proposal, which has rankled the nerves of some at the hotel apartments, AT&T agreed to conduct a study to measure the emissions within 2 feet of a comparable device and work with city staff to consider antenna placement that would not require AT&T to enter tenant apartments to maintain the device.
The Planning and Transportation Commission voted four to one to conditionally allow the installation, following three and half hours' discussion. Commissioners Lee Lippert and Susan Fineberg were absent. The City Council will also have to give final approval to the plan.
Residents had requested Wednesday's hearing Jan. 14, citing potential health risks and privacy intrusions resulting from installation and maintenance of the 12-inch antennas. AT&T has maintained that the antennas are needed to keep up with the demand on their 3G wireless network. Hotel President renters turned out in force to protest the intrusion of the installation.
"I'm ... shocked that this entry into our apartments is to support a commercial service that doesn't benefit any of the residents of the building," sixth-floor tenant Jeffrey Jones said.
Federal law prohibits the commission from denying applications for projects that would not emit radio frequencies below limits set by the Federal Communications Commission. The city only has the authority to deny applications based on substantive aesthetic concerns. It must approve applications aimed at filling a gap in a provider's service coverage, said Paul Albritton, a consulting attorney for AT&T. The gaps are responsible for dropped calls and failed data transfers, among other things.
"This is a very elegant, low-powered solution to coverage gaps at this particular site on University Avenue," Albritton said.
Commission members quizzed AT&T representatives on the intensity of emissions from antennas, which would apparently operate at a maximum power output of three watts, compared to a single watt for retail routers, and emit radio frequency outward from the building rather than in all directions.
Exposure on the balcony for two residents whose French doors open onto it would still be 200 times below limits established by the Federal Communications Commission, William Hammett, a consulting engineer for AT&T, said.
"You could hug this antenna and not exceed the federal limits," Hammett said.
Residents requested AT&T consider other commercial spaces, and Commissioner Eduardo Gonzalez voiced concerns about the intrusion on residential space.
AT&T officials said 12 alternative sites were considered downtown and deemed unsuitable because of their distance from the location in need of coverage, the lack of architectural features to disguise the installation, or insufficient access to fiber-optic cable, which would then require trenching the busy two-lane downtown street.
AT&T officials said that by locating antennas beneath rather than on the balcony and avoiding tenant apartments, a "bucket truck" would be needed to reach the antennas for maintenance. That would effectively close portions of University Avenue, they said.
But they agreed to the conditions added to the commission's approval installation plans.
"Over the next several weeks, our engineers will work with planning department staff to mitigate potential public impacts," AT&T Strategic Affairs Adviser Lane Kasselman said.
Commission Chair Samir Tuma criticized the public outreach AT&T and the city conducted on the project. While tenants were notified of the proposal in advance of deadlines, the city's planning staff originally relied on an address system that did not send notices to individual residents, staff members said.
"Coming to the public two days before a meeting is a mistake in Palo Alto," Tuma said.
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Editorial Intern Sarah Trauben can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.